War. Stories from Ukraine

Ukrainians tell stories about their life during the war

The Vulnerable. How Those Who Cannot Escape from the War Are Living

by | 7 July 2022 | War. Stories from Ukraine, Donetsk Region, Kharkiv, Sumy Region

Illustrated by Karyna Katsun

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approximately 7 million people have been forced to move within the country to save themselves of the war. More than 5 million have left the country. The Russian army is shelling and bombing Ukrainian cities and villages, completely destroying them. The infrastructure is damaged, schools, hospitals, kindergartens, museums, churches, thousands of residential buildings and shopping centers are ruined. What is happening to those people who cannot evacuate and save themselves of the war? How are they living under shelling, occupation and why do they not leave? We are telling their stories.

As a result of shelling, the electricity and gas networks were again seriously damaged. Electricity and gas supply was suspended on most of the territory of Derhachi”. “A shell hit a private yard”. “This morning the enemy carried out a missile strike against Derhachi”.

Now such news is common to the small city in Kharkiv region, that is under constant shelling from the Russian army.

In the middle of this news and shelling Liuba is maneuvering on a bicycle.

“If you have already started doing something, you have to do it,” she says.

On her shoulders there is a backpack with food products, the steering wheel is hung with packages of rations. Liuba is spinning the pedals. There, where she is going, she is being waited for.

Volodymyr Prokopovych is 93 years old. He survived the Second World War. And there is the war again. His wife died 18 years ago. He has two sons, but both of them are also pensioners and ill, thus they cannot take care of their father. Volodymyr Prokopovych cannot see. Liuba cooks for him. She searches for and brings medicine, food products, water, passes his pension, helps around the house. She does everything just not to leave him alone.

Berehynia from Derhachi. How Social Workers Are Saving Those Who Are Left Alone

Berehynia meaning

a female keeper, a creature of Eastern Slavic mythology

Liubov Zaritska is a social worker of the Derhachi territorial center for social services “Berehynia”. Currently she has eight wards – all of them are elderly people who cannot cope without external support.

“It is okay,” she waves off, when I ask her if she is having a hard time. “It is bearable. This is not a sack of bricks to carry. I am not complaining. On the contrary, I am trying very hard to help everyone in need. I do not refuse anyone. It is probably easier with children than with the elderly. The elderly command and forget. They got used to this and only this. But I always find a common tongue.”

This is Liuba’s talent and superpower. She is at work at seven a.m. At two p.m. she gets on her bicycle and goes to visit “my grannies and grandpas”. In between she distributes humanitarian aid in the community.

When on February 24 everyone woke up to the explosions, Liuba did not know what to do. She was sitting, walking around the house… But then she did what she could. She took a bicycle and went to Volodymyr Prokopovych. Because she had to warm up his food.

“Heavy explosions started. My daughter is calling and shouting into the phone: “Mom, come back home! What are you doing?” I said: “Do not worry, I will hide, there is a basement here. I did everything, returned home. We, social workers from those who stayed, have worked and continue working. For example, today I will go to my granny Valentyna Mykolaiivna. I will have more time, so I will be able to chat with her. She always asks me: sit next to me. They need communication badly.”

Valentyna Mykolaiivna’s son died. Her granddaughter with three children is in occupied Izium, Kharkiv region. There had been no news from them for two months. Liuba helped Valentyna Mykolaiivna with the search, there was no one else to do that. She called the hotline, volunteers.

“I am arriving at her place, opening a wicket gate, and my legs are giving way. I know what kind of condition she is in. Because she is all alone. I constantly told her: “Read prayers, everything will be fine”. And so it happened. We have recently received a call: the granddaughter and her children are alive. They were found.”

Liuba is smiling. She talks about shelling in a casual manner:

“I have often come under it. Recently “Grad” has flown a few streets from me. I was riding a bicycle with a backpack. I hang the packages on the steering wheel. Then I had to drop everything, to lay down on the ground. I was sprinkled with that earth, everything was besmirched a little. But no fragments, thank God. We try to sit out such shelling. Either at grandmas’ places or at home.”

But you never know where they will be next time. Liuba sent her children to a safer place. She was especially worried about her grandson, who is only one and a half years old.

“We had been sleeping in the basement throughout February and March. As soon as you heard rumblings, you had to grab them and hide. And when we took them out of here, I calmed down. It became easier for me.”

She herself is not going to evacuate, and in this she is similar to her wards.

“Many people have left now. And these ones categorically do not want to. “I am not going anywhere from here, what is to happen, will happen.” They were being asked, persuaded. They do not want to. And it happened that children were taking them away. It was a horror. Screams, cries: “I will not leave my house.” Imagine, they had been living here for 80 years, and it is a great trauma for them to leave the place. Although, of course, they are afraid. This war is disgusting for them and they do not understand it. They fear for their children, worry for the young, cry for everyone: “What for is this happening to you?”

When Liuba is asked when it will end, she answers:

Everyone needs to do something for the war to end. And if I do not do anything, it will be worse precisely for me. I will not be able to live like this. I have to do something, to do and to do.”

Before the war the Derhachi territorial center was helping almost half a thousand wards from three communities – single elderly people, people with disabilities and families in difficult life circumstances.

The war made adjustments to its life. Some of the social workers and wards left. Some found themselves under occupation and there is still no connection with them. The territorial center is now working in two directions: its workers are distributing humanitarian aid and providing services to people with reduced mobility at home.

Since the beginning of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine Roman Lukianenko, the director of the territorial center, has been constantly on duty, receiving a stream of phone calls.

“At first we had a lot of requests for food products,” he says. “Stores stopped working, even bread was nowhere to be found. At that time humanitarian aid deliveries had not been arranged yet. Several social workers left and their wards did not understand what to do. Someone was left by relatives, and we picked up these people.”

Roman Lukianenko

Roman himself is currently not just managing the work of the territorial center and distributing humanitarian aid but is also helping evacuate people. By a happy coincidence, last year the center purchased a special vehicle for the transportation of bedridden patients in order to launch a social taxi service. And now this bus is worth its weight in gold. For example, it was used to transport bedridden patients from the city hospital of Derhachi, near which a shell exploded.

Kharkiv region borders Russia, so it immediately found itself in the war zone. Currently a third of the territory of the region is occupied by the Russian troops. The Russians are trying to hold the captured settlements and are making attempts to attack in other directions. Every day civilians die here and the infrastructure is destroyed by missile attacks and shelling by the Russian army.

“We were short-handed even in peacetime. And now the remaining workers have an even heavier load. Not only the physical one. They worry about their lives and the lives of their relatives, but at the same time they have to cope not only wirth themselves but also with other people in a bad psychological state,” Roman says.

Now he is dreaming of buying electric bicycles with trailers for the workers of the center. Such bicycles would certainly make Liuba’s job easier, at least physically.

Home That Cannot Be Left. Why People Do Not Run Away from the War

Once a woman refused to leave the house that turned out to be on the battle line. Her house was being shelled, projectiles and missiles were exploding near it. There was no light, no gas, no water in it, but she remained there.

There were even no walls left from another house – a direct hit by a projectile. The whole family is in hospital. However, the elderly woman who lived in that house with her family wants to go back. To the place she was evacuated from. Where she lost everything.

Pavlo Artiomov, who heads the humanitarian center “Proliska” in Kharkiv and Kharkiv region, can tell many such cases.

“From the psychological point of view, the hardest thing is to lose your loved ones and native home. It is especially critical for the elderly,” he says. “We faced the consequences of this many times. For example, elderly people, people with disabilities, who previously could count on the support of close ones, refused to leave with them to safe regions. And these are real family tragedies, because families had to make very painful decisions. There are cases when relatives left their close ones. Or those whom relatives paid for the care of their elderly parents left.”

The humanitarian mission “Proliska” helps in such cases with medicines, medical care, food and personal hygiene products and provides social and psychological support. But in order to be able to help, one must first identify those who are left one-on-one against the war.

Other volunteer initiatives also face this problem.

“During the mass evacuation families sometimes left their elderly parents for various reasons. Some hoped that their parents would manage on their own. But business also began leaving. Pharmacies, a large number of stores and post offices were closed. People turned out to be cut off. There were such situations that for a large nine-story building there were only two or three apartments with single pensioners with reduced mobility. And we had to find out about them somehow,” Olha Kosse says. She works for the public organization “Vidpovidalni hromadiany” (“Responsible Citizens”), which since 2014 has been helping residents of the front-line areas affected by the hostilities. Their activity covered Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but from February 2022 they expanded it to the entire east of Ukraine.

Olha says: in the conditions of the war people with reduced mobility are always in the most difficult situation. They often depend not even on relatives but on neighbors – whether there will be someone among them who will come to help.

One Home for All. Why Not All Social Institutions Were Evacuated and How Workers and Their Wards Are Living under Shelling 

“Will you take us back?”

Svitlana heard this question every time she sent her wards by train to safer regions. Svitlana (the name is changed for the safety of the heroine and the institution) works for one of the municipal geriatric nursing homes in Donetsk region, where lonely elderly people live.

With the help of the local authorities, who were looking for free places in other institutions and arranging logistics, they gradually took more than half of their wards out of the war zone. First of all, those who could move independently.

“Our wards are like children. They are waiting for some decision from you, some word of reassurance. In fact, they are completely dependent,” Svitlana says.

The evacuation was difficult. “People were scared. They did not know where they were going,” she explains. “These grannies and grandpas had been living with us for many years; some for 15, some even for 20 years. For them such moving is like a step into the unknown.”

And getting used to a new place is ahead. The evacuation is only the beginning of a new story.

At present several dozens of bedridden patients who may not be able to survive the moving are staying in the nursing home. Svitlana says that her colleagues and she are preparing for everything. They have equipped a basement in the institution as an air raid shelter, stocked up on food products, bought generators and gas stoves. They made their own well back in 2014, when they faced water problems.

Such limbo: the past is gone, and the future has not arrived yet.”

“You have to adapt to what is. And work helps a lot. If I am responsible for people, then I have to show calmness. I do not know what tomorrow will bring, but I tune in for the good. In any case I will stay in the nursing home until the end – either the end of the war or of my health,” Svitlana says.

During the war it was possible to evacuate some of the geriatric nursing homes, psycho-neurological boarding houses and palliative care units for the terminally ill. Others got under occupation, and before that they had actually lived under shelling, Andrii Rokhanskyi, a member of the Coordination Council at the Ombudsman of Ukraine for the Implementation of the National Preventive Mechanism, says. With the help of a network of monitors, within the project of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Strategies he collects information on the situations in which institutions found themselves during the war.

In general, many institutions were not ready for hostilities, primarily from the security point of view: they did not equip air raid shelters in advance and did not have any evacuation plans.

Therefore, at the beginning of the full-scale invasion social institutions were forced to survive on their own and with the help of volunteers.

Not all of them survived. Near Kreminna in Luhansk region, which is almost completely occupied, the Russian servicemen fired at the nursing home from a tank. According to the head of the Luhansk Regional State Administration Serhii Haidai, 56 people died at that time.

Valentyna Volyk, a monitor of the National Preventive Mechanism, talks about how during the war social institutions worked in Sumy region, which was partially occupied by the Russian troops in the first days of the large-scale invasion; for example, a boarding house for the elderly in Okhtyrka.

“They were running out of food. Both local residents and the staff were helping in whatever way they could. Then all the medicines actually disappeared. It was impossible to get a lot of specific medicines needed for psychoneurological and palliative patients. We were able to distribute among different institutions what we found only due to volunteer initiatives,” Valentyna says.

Throughout March aerial bombardment and shelling of the city continued. So the geriatric facility moved to a nearby village. They did not manage to evacuate beyond the borders of Sumy region. The Russian troops did not give green corridors.

“We had a big problem with transport. The Russian troops who entered the communities destroyed public transport, probably, first of all, in particular buses. Institutions have their own vehicles, but there are so few of them that they do not allow to promptly evacuate,” Valentyna explains.

At the same time there were no air raid shelters in the institutions or they were cluttered and not adapted for the stay of patients.

For a month the Russian army had been shelling the city with heavy artillery and making airstrikes. As a result, almost all high-rise buildings of Okhtyrka are uninhabitable, and the city’s critical infrastructure suffered enormous damage. According to the preliminary data of the Sumy Regional Prosecutor’s Office, 30 civilians and one child were killed.

“After the liberation local and international organizations help us. Therefore, institutions have managed to create a certain stock of food and personal hygiene products. Plus now the attitude towards air raid shelters is different. They are not neglected, attempts are made to equip them with everything necessary,” Valentyna Volyk says.

The Okhtyrka boarding house has returned to its building. They still need food products, replacing of the panes that were broken out because of explosions. In addition, clothes that were burned in fires are needed for wards. And now they already have to think about winter and how to start the heating season. The Russians destroyed the CHP plant in Okhtyrka.

Sumy region was liberated two months ago, but every day the Russian army continues shelling 18 communities in the region from its territory. So it can hardly be said that everything is behind.

According to Andrii Rokhanskyi, many institutions are currently in the potential risk zone.

“These are Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Sumy, Mykolaiiv and Donetsk regions. And if the battle line moves towards the institution, then the head must understand where to take buses from, how to seat people, where they will go, whether they are waited for there,” he says. “While the war continues, the steam train must be under steam.”

Then it will save lives.

Prepare for the Worst, but Keep On Living. How Terminally Ill Children, Who Stay under Shelling, Are Living

“When they were shelling, we were carrying children in our arms to the basement. Only two of them could walk on their own legs. A room was equipped in the basement. As soon as the shelling ended, the children were carried upstairs,” Tetiana Chub, the technical director of the medical rehabilitation and palliative care center for children “Hippocrat” in Kharkiv, which has been under heavy shelling by the Russian army since the beginning of the war, says.

Tetiana lives in Saltivka, a residential area of Kharkiv that was seriously damaged by shelling. More precisely, she lived there. A missile hit the roof of her house, the panes in the apartment were blown out. Nothing remained of the dacha in Staryi Saltiv.

At first, Tetiana was spending nights in the center. She slept with her husband on the floor in the office. Now Tetiana lives at her daughter’s place.

Some of the children in the care of the state, who were in the center, remained in Kharkiv in the intensive care units of children’s hospitals. These are children connected to oxygen machines and it is impossible to take them out. They will not survive the road. It was possible to evacuate to Germany some of the wards, who were undergoing rehabilitation there, together with their mothers and medical staff back in March, albeit with great difficulty. Some families who visited “Hippocrat” did not leave the city.

“Deterioration of children’s condition is what parents faced. And this is the reason why we all began returning to work little by little, regardless of the risks. Now our occupational therapist, physical therapist, pediatrician and speech pathologists are working. We try to meet the needs of our children. In conditions of shelling it is very difficult, but children cannot do it without rehabilitation.”

And Tetiana cannot leave them.

I do not panic at all, I only believe in our victory,” she says. “This is our home, we have to be here and fight as best we can.”

13-year-old Denys definitely knows how to fight. He is one of those who have been visiting the center “Hippocrat” for many years. He has cerebral palsy. Earlier it was the specialists of the center who convinced Denys’ mother Nataliia that his diagnosis did not mean the end of his life. And she believed them.


Despite the large-scale invasion and massive shelling of Kharkiv, Nataliia stayed at home with her son and family.

“My grandparents were crying, begging us to go. But then who would take care of them? The grandmother is 83 years old, she does not leave the apartment anymore. The grandfather is 89. The transport did not work, my mother would not be able to get to them, and I live nearby,” Nataliia says.

From the basement, which served as an air raid shelter during shelling, Denys and his mother Nataliia were separated by only 7 steps of one stairwell, the ladder down and the son’s diagnosis. Several times they even went down there.

“We cannot just grab things and quickly run to the air raid shelter. My trip to the basement is not a matter of seconds,” Nataliia says. “Denys is already an adult. He weighs 37 kg and has a height of 150 cm. We are almost the same with him, but I have to take him in my arms. To go down the ladder, someone had to lower him from above, and I picked up my son from below.”

After all, “running” to the air raid shelter took at least 20 minutes, so it lost its point. I had to equip a shelter for ourselves in the corridor of the apartment away from the windows.

The customized everyday life is critically important for Denys. This is another reason why the family did not go anywhere. Nataliia makes a lot of effort for Denys to learn to take care of himself, so she is afraid that he will lose it because of the moving. He eats from this spoon, he can sit on this chair. They made a handrail throughout the apartment to make it easier for him to move around.

“We have been nestling for a long time, creating a comfort zone. For example, I never thought that the sturdiness and height of a sofa could be of such great importance. And the child sits and dresses on one, but not on the other. Or the width of the bed… Denys cannot sleep on a narrow bed because he is afraid. There are many such nuances. There is a walker, a bicycle, wall bars here. Everything is nearby. Would I be able to find him at least approximately the necessary conditions? We are talking about both the toilet and the bathroom. Everyday life for such children should be adapted very much. Imagine that there is no such possibility. This means that Denys will sit again in the wheelchair and will not do anything himself. I will have to feed him… In six months in this mode he will lose all skills. What we have been fighting for every day for years,” Nataliia says.

For Denys not to be afraid of explosions, his mother was giving him a sedative and putting on earplugs. He kept asking: “Mom, when will it be over? When will I go to school?” As soon as they heard the explosions, they hugged, reassuring each other: everything will be fine. For a month Denys had hardly left home. Fortunately, their neighbors took great care of them. And when “Hippocrat” resumed work, both Denys and Nataliia were happy. The boy needs regular sessions with a rehabilitator. If he does not visit a specialist, a physical rollback begins.

Stress only worsens the situation,” Nataliia explains. “I am very grateful to the center that they are present here at such a time, they have not all left. Doctors, risking their lives, help us psychologically, socially and in the humanitarian aspect. There is someone to lean on. Life goes on, so there is the faith that everything will be fine. I think we did everything right. We are close to our relatives. And Denys develops.”

Even during the war he can boast of his achievements. The boy learned to eat independently with a fork, to hold a cup and drink from it and also to put on a sweater. In wartime these seemingly small victories are actually very big.

The project is produced with the support of Lviv Media Forum and EU-funded programme House of Europe.

Author: Olena Struk

Editor: Aliona Vyshnytska

Illustrator: Karyna Katsun

Translator: Khrystyna Mykhailiuk

More stories